It all becomes clear now: Structure, dysfunction, and the Episcopal Church

Katie Sherrod, a member of Executive Council, has published her version of the budget and restructuring debates in and around EC. With Susan Russell’s from last week, the two combine to offer an alternative narrative to that produced by the Presiding Bishop and the Chief Operating Officer, and to offer explanations for the deep distrust among all the players involved. It’s clear that it’s not just the process that’s broken. The institution, structures, and relationships are broken as well. Indeed, so broken is everything that I’m not sure there’s any point in trying to fix things.

My question for all those involved–PB, COO, PHoD, EC, staff, even GC itself: “How can you imagine any of us on the margins of these structures, looking on from afar, can have any trust in any of it, or even any sense that what you do might have a positive impact on what we’re trying to do in the local church?”

Where do we go from here? Can these bones live? I don’t think so. I think there’s only one answer and it’s a complete demolition and rebuild. We’ve got to rebuild from the bottom up, not remodel the existing edifice. Those who are currently involved in running things should be excluded from designing plans for the new structure. They are both too invested in the Church as it exists and too caught up in the conflicts and struggles of the past to imagine new structures and to imagine a new way of being church.

How do we go about all this? There are lots of proposals out there already and I’m not going to add to the mix. Instead, I’m going to urge my diocesan deputation to General Convention to engage in conversations about structure with others and to encourage the development of a process that takes place outside the existing structures of the Church (i.e., General Convention, Executive Council, 815). I’m going to urge them to listen to voices that don’t want to re-open old wounds or rehearse old antagonisms (even if “old” dates only to October 2011, January, March, May 2012). From those conversations may bubble up an alternative way to approach restructuring. It may even be that an already proposed resolution might point a way forward.

Scott Gunn has a great deal to say on these matters. I agree wholeheartedly:

In my view, we should start with a blank slate. “IF we were creating the Episcopal Church from scratch for our time, what would it look like?” Let’s pretend we have no headquarters, no committees, no legislative assembly. Nothing. What would we build? What does our mission compel us to build?

Our question cannot be, does this committee do a good job and are the people who have served on it faithful servants? No, the question must be, how can we do this work? Is there a way to do it without a committee? Do we need a staff office to make this work happen?

There should be no sacred cows. Everything, and I mean everything, should be up for grabs. Except. We are an episcopal church, so we need to continue to understand that the fundamental unit of the church is the diocese, not the congregation or a larger structure. Also, we need a model that supports ministry and leadership by lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Open, clear, governance is necessary.

I’m also going to propose a resolution at our diocesan convention that funds our asking to the National Church only at the level needed for canonical support (apparently 5%). That would free up a great deal of money for us to use in developing programs and networks both internally and across dioceses to do the mission and ministry work we need to do as a church. It may also be that from such efforts a new creation might spring forth.

I’ve found Bishop Kirk Smith’s reflections about restructuring which he places in the context of “creative abandonment,” quite enlightening.

Is a representative democracy the best way to structure a denomination?

Like Churchill said, it may be better than the alternatives. It’s certainly better than the authoritarian hierarchy we see elsewhere, but can we envision alternatives?

Jim Naughton takes to task those who see in the infinite vote-takings at General Convention a culture of “winners and losers.” He wonders whether we have become to fragile for democracy.

Mark Harris has asked the same thing.

Others disagree. Susan B. Snook advocates a deep period of prayer and discernment as we look toward restructuring, rather than the calling of a special convention.

Scott Gunn’s blogging blue has come to the resolutions on public policy that are before GC 2012. He is sharply critical of resolutions that ask governments to take action. In fact, this is one of my pet peeves. I’ve sat through enough diocesan conventions to dread the debate over this or that resolution that takes a stand on some issue facing the state or the nation. I doubt that whatever we say, as a diocese or as the Episcopal Church, has any impact on lawmakers or on public policy. The impact it does have is on making some of us feel good, when the resolution that is passed is in keeping with our political agenda. It also alienates those who may take a different perspective on the issue, and ultimately, it may alienate outsiders as well.

In the Episcopal Church, we have seen a hard-fought partisan battle over the full inclusion of LGBT persons. That battle is winding down with the approval of liturgies for blessings likely this summer. There were winners and losers and many of the losers left the church.

We live in a political culture of hyper-partisanship and I think we need to ask ourselves whether the deep partisan divide that affects our political culture may also have infected our church. Are there other ways of decision-making that might avoid up or down votes on hundreds of resolutions? Are there other models for gathering the larger community together to discern God’s will? We have a legislative process in the Church and in the nation. The legislative process is broken in Washington; perhaps it’s broken in General Convention as well–or perhaps it diminishes us as individuals and as the body of Christ, instead of allowing us to flourish.

The analogy between bookstores and the church

David Lose, whom I respect immensely, wrote recently on the parallel decline of bookstores and institutional Christianity:

This means things may – actually, strike that, things will  – look different. But it may also lead to a renewed sense of the nature and purpose of our congregations.  After all, there are a lot fewer book publishers and bookstores than there were a decade ago. At the same time, more people are reading – print books, ebooks, blogs, webzines, etc. – than ever before. The question isn’t whether people will keep reading, but who will help them do it.

The same is true, I think, of congregations. This present generation reports a greater interest in mystery, the divine, and spirituality than has any generation in a century. So the question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God

Then I came across this. In 1931,

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Read the whole article.

The rise of book publishing, “the paperback generation,” perfectly mirrors the growth in institutional Christianity in the twentieth century. The decline in “bricks and mortar” retailing, perfectly mirrors the decline in institutional Christianity.

What should we conclude? Lose is right: “The question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God.”

This week in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

i.e., talking about restructuring the Episcopal Church

Scott Gunn, in his blogging blue series, has this to say about a resolution to create a task force focused on restructuring:

when this task force is convened, we need to make sure it doesn’t have any of the usual suspects. The same people will bring us the same ideas. That’s not what we need. And if at any point you voted in favor of the disaster of a budget that came out of various committees and Executive Council, you especially should not be on this group. Not that anyone will pay attention to the ranting of a simple blogger.

A thoughtful post from Unapologetic Theology on gnats, camels and General Convention. He puts his finger on what I’ve been thinking, too:

Rather, I’ve come to believe in the concept of “parallel growth change.”

“Parallel growth” is a strategy apparently adopted by some major corporations that face issues similar to the Episcopal Church: outdated structures, bloated budgets, overly centralized and irrelevant systems.

The theory is this: Those interested in change should resist the temptation to battle the system or try to change the dominant, inherited culture – battles that only end up causing turf wars because people tend protect “the way things are.”

Rather, leaders who are in favor of change are encouraged to all but ignore “the system” and concentrate almost all their efforts on encouraging healthy franchises – those local retailers that are doing well in spite of “corporate” policy or procedures.

The analogy isn’t perfect – we’re not a corporation – but how that looks in the Episcopal Church is that people who are in favor of change should all but ignore “the system” and concentrate their efforts on encouraging healthy congregations – those congregations that are growing and mission-minded in spite of diocesan or “national” structures.

Susan Brown Snook is thinking along the same lines:

Let’s put everything on the table at this Convention – the budget, the structures of the church, the shape of Convention itself.  Let’s not spend our time wrangling over niceties in an endless series of resolutions that will make no difference to the church.  Instead, let’s have a conversation about where Jesus is leading us.  Let’s pray and read the Bible and discern where God is calling us to go.  Let’s network and share and listen for the voices of the ones who aren’t often heard – the younger, less experienced people who have a better understanding of the future that lies ahead.

The Future of America? The Future of the Church? George Scialabba on Morris Berman

George Scialabba writes a moving essay detailing Morris Berman’s view on the decline of American civilization:

As a former medievalist, Berman finds contemporary parallels to the fall of Rome compelling. By the end of the empire, he points out, economic inequality was drastic and increasing, the legitimacy and efficacy of the state was waning, popular culture was debased, civic virtue among elites was practically nonexistent, and imperial military commitments were hopelessly unsustainable. As these volumes abundantly illustrate, this is 21st century America in a nutshell.

But is there hope? Yes:

Berman offers little comfort, but he does note a possible role for those who perceive the inevitability of our civilization’s decline. He calls it the “monastic option.” Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by “creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye.” Even if one’s ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.

Sounds like the Early (now “Late”) Church to me. More food for thought as we think about mission and restructuring.

Think we’ve (Episcopalians) got it bad? Check out the Methodists

Tony Jones blogs a reflection on the United Methodist General Conference that took place a couple of weeks ago.

The eye-popping numbers: It cost $1500/minute!!! (I hope someone does the numbers for our own General Convention).

Will Willimon comments. Willimon’s warning applies to us as well:

My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.”  Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from thesystemdesire.  Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.

Jones concludes:

All bureaucracies are good at one thing: self-perpetuation. They may be good at other things, too, but the propagation of the gospel is not one of those. Bureaucracy is good at distributing drivers licenses. But bureaucracies are bad for the gospel.

Mission, Structure, and Budget–Following the Debate

Here are links to various things I talked about last night.

And if you’re a hardcore Episco-geek, here’s the link to the General Convention website (mature audiences only)

And the blogs I mentioned (where to follow the debate)